David Mamet on the Top 10 American Plays and Why Plot Matters

In his new collection of short essays, playwright David Mamet has compiled his top 10 list of American plays. Mamet's list, in descending order:

• Thornton Wilder's "Our Town"

• Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's "The Front Page"

• Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

• Tennessee Williams's "A Streetcar Named Desire"

• Arthur Miller's "All My Sons"

• John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt"

• William Saroyan's "The Time of Your Life"

• Mart Crowley's "The Boys in the Band"

• Gore Vidal's "The Best Man"

• Clare Boothe Luce's "The Women"

"What do these plays have in common?" Mr. Mamet writes. "They are intensely American. That is, they both treat American issues and are written in an American idiom closer to real poetry than to prose."

As always, Mamet courts controversy (no mention of Eugene O'Neill in his list of great American plays?). But he also makes some intriguing points. For example, in the chapter entitled “Hunting Instincts” Mamet compares the experience of watching a play to that of a hunt.

According to Mamet: “The task of the playwright is to make the audience wonder what is going to happen next. That’s it.” (This kind of blunt hyperbole leads Mamet onto thin rhetorical ice. All that matters is what happens next? That's it? What then are we to make of Mamet's praise of "poetry" from the same collection of essays.) But Mamet does touch on an important idea about the role of plot in dramatic literature, especially dramatic writing for a mass audience (like Broadway plays, TV and films). If I understand Mamet's point, if you're writing for a mass audience, your most critical job is to support the audience's primal drive to follow a plot.

What I find especially intriguing is the way Mamet connects the "hunt" (the inherent impulse in an audience to follow plot) to what other writers have called the "willing suspension of disbelief." When the audience is engaged in the plot, Mamet says: “We suspend the rational process of intellectualization, which is to say, of the comparison of phenomenon to idea, which is a process too slow for the hunt.”

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